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Can the empire strike back after Brexit?

Edoardo Campanella
Edoardo Campanella
Campanella is affiliated with the Future of the World, the Center for the Governance of Change at the IE Business School in Madrid and, together with Marta Dassu, has written Anglo Nostalgia: The Politics of Emotion in a Fractured West.
The Victorians: Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain
Forfatter: Jacob Rees-Mogg
Forlag: WH Allen (Storbritannia)
NOSTALGIC IMPERIALISM / Ny Tid is looking at two books with Boris Johnson's future policy in mind. Are selective and nostalgic dives into the history of the British Empire a good recipe for shaping politics or Britain's future post-Brexit?


The most convinced Brexit supporters in the British Parliament are a few twists – but author of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, is possibly the most eccentric of them all. He is almost a caricature of an Englishman: raised in a Catholic upper-class family as the son of the chief editor of The Times, with aristocratic affiliations and bespoke suits that did not sit very well. The Economist has referred to him as "the blue passport in human form, the red live phone box and the Royal Yacht Britannica in striped suits" to emphasize how English he is. Others rather tease him with a phrase from John Le Carré's book Call for the Dead and calls him "a barmaid's dream of a gentleman."

But Rees-Moggs is not just personified nostalgia – he was also an important supporter of Boris Johnson's successful fight to become prime minister, and is now a member of Johnson's government. Rees-Moggs believes that the only way to bring the British Empire back to its heyday is to leave the EU. He would rather return to the end of the Victorian era, to the period before Britain ended up as one of many ordinary nations.

The Victorians is Rees-Mogg's attempt to fill ideas and dreams with substance. Unless otherwise noted, the book shows how Brexit followers manipulate history strategically. Imbued with nostalgia for a time that no longer exists – if it has existed at all – the book's aim is to trick the British into believing that the nation would still be a global power factor had it not been for the coercive jersey imposed on them by the EU.

boy club

Inspired by Lytton Strachey's classic Eminent Victorians (1918), which consists of four biographies from the Victorian era, Rees-Mogg's book consists of essays about twelve people he gives credit for having created modern Britain. Among these are four statesmen: Lord Palmerston, Robert Peel, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli; two military leaders: Robert Napier and Charles Gordon; lawyers Albert Venn Dicey; cricketer WG Grace; architect Augustus Pugin (The Big Ben Clock Tower) and William Sleeman, who administered British India. Had it not been for Queen Victoria's presence, this would have been a solid boys' club.

The book is not a bestseller. The first week after launch, it sold a staggering 734 copies in the UK, despite good support from the media's attention around the author. It has also not been well received by reviewers, whose reviews hardly end up on upcoming book covers: "too pompous and full of clichés" and "should think it was written by a baboon". If the book is printed in a new edition at all.

Some of the criticism may be due to political bias among Brexit's most ardent supporters. Anyone who is genuinely interested in the Victorian era (1837–1901) can find better sources for understanding the period than this. The Victorians is full of inaccuracies, generalizations abound, swollen twists and strange omissions have been used.

We can start with the character gallery, which seems arbitrary. The author's account of the period leaves no room for writers, poets, engineers, scientists, explorers or feminist icons, despite the fact that this is the time period of Charles Dickens, George Eliot (the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans), Charles Darwin and David Livingstone.

Furthermore, Rees-Mogg's reductionist description of the Victorian era as a time of economic abundance and global reach is directly misleading. If anything, the Victorian era was as chaotic and destabilizing as our modern times.

When the unrest of the Victorian era culminated in World War I, decades of rapid industrialization had unleashed poverty, discontent, and social tensions at home. Managing territories far away was not easy either, given that great powers such as Germany and Japan wanted to acquire colonies themselves.

The good imperialism?

Despite an increasing number of books revealing the looting of British India, the manufactures The Victorians British imperialism as a tool to bring civilization out to the enlightened peoples of the world. Rees-Mogg's admirable text about Gordon, an officer and colony administrator who served in China, Egypt, and Sudan, states that "spreading British civilization […] was an inherent good in itself." And Prince Albert believed that the empire was "founded on morality", we are told.

The Victorians' goal is to trick the British into believing that the nation would still be a global powerhouse had it not been for the straitjacket the EU has inflicted on them.

Jacob Rees-Mogg. Photo: Wikipedia

In fact, the British Empire plundered its colonies for resources, created or exacerbated famines that took the lives of millions of people, and oppressed entire civilizations on the basis of race. There are countless examples of the brutality of the empire, from the two opium wars and the slave trade to the use of toxic gas in northern India against what Winston Churchill called "uncivilized tribes." The fact is that some of these crimes can be attributed to the men mentioned in Rees-Mogg's book. The first opium war was also called Palmerston's opium war, since it was as Secretary of State Palmerston that the British secured bases for the opium trade in China, without taking into account the local population.

By omitting such facts, Rees-Mogg's book reveals how ignorant Brexit supporters are. Suddenly we understand why Boris Johnson, without hesitation, when he as Foreign Minister during an official visit to Myanmar in 2017 uttered the first lines of Rudyard Kiplings The Road to Mandalay: «The temple bells they say / Come back you English soldier.» The British ambassador to Myanmar was so embarrassed that he intervened and stopped the minister.

The World's Fair in Hyde Park in London in 1851 showed the industry's progress. Ill: Wikipedia

Nostalgic nationalism

From an intellectual standpoint, Rees-Mogg's selective scribbles are about as filling and nutritious as a modest bag of popcorn. The Victorians is not intended to be a historical work, nor does the author seek recognition from professionals. Rees-Moggs is a full-blooded nationalist. Like Lenin, he sees history as something that can be searched and exploited for personal gain. The purpose of Rees-Mogg's nostalgic narrative is to detach Britain, not just geographically, but historically, from a crowded continent whose past, present and future are inexorably linked. He wants us to see Victorian Britain as an exceptional empire that gave the world democracy, freedom, laws and rules and a legislative assembly.

The Victorian era was as chaotic and destabilizing as our modern times.

In line with traditional nationalism, which idealizes and seeks to advance the interests of a specific cultural group, Rees-Moggs' nostalgic nationalism elevates the Victorian era as a period the nation should have as a model. The book deals with a longer period than the Victorian era and presents the years 1784–1922 as «a period of moral security and success». This description stands in stark contrast to the mention of today's Britain, which is paralyzed by "the forces of stagnation, fear and hesitation" with an establishment that "believes that their job is to manage a decline".

The performance and the memory of historical glory days are central to many national narratives. But for the traditional nationalist movement, a return to the past will only be metaphorical. What makes pro-Brexit an extreme manifestation of nostalgic nationalism is precisely that one concretely wants to go back in time to recreate the empire's sunny days of great power.

At least one wants to go back to 1973, when Britain became a member of the EC – the European Economic Community and the forerunner of the EU – and supposedly relinquished its sovereignty over its domestic affairs. Here the author disregards the fact that the United Kingdom's economy in 1973 was extremely poor, and that was just before one had to ask for help from the International Monetary Fund. Stubborn pro-Brexits like Rees-Mogg, on the other hand, regard 1973 as a staging post on the way back to the 1800th century.

It seems that some even take the time travel after Brexit seriously: A Brexit supporter told a journalist from the think tank Demos: "We are going back to the Victorian era. They were better off than we were. "

The uncertainty surrounding Britain's future outside the EU shows the gap between Rees-Mogg's ambitions for the resurrection of the Victorian era and political reality. Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, supporters of the divorce have portrayed Brexit as the final result of a long-running conflict with continental Europe – from Henry V's victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415 to the defeat of the Spanish armada in 1588.

See also the review of The Age of Decadence: Deep nostalgia on the border of utopianism

© Project Syndicate
Translated by Iril Kolle

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